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FEATURE – English Electric Lightning: the twilight years

Photo: Keith Hartley raises the undercarriage as he departs Warton in XP693 on delivery to Exeter, December 23, 1992. HUGH TREVOR


In its twilight years the Lightning turned from hunter to hunted, as Ken Ellis explains

Fighter pilots the world over make great play of the adage: “There are only two types of aircraft – friendlies and targets.” Ironically, during the final operational days of the awesome English Electric (EE) Lightning it served as prey for its successor, the Panavia Tornado.

Binbrook, on the Lincolnshire Wolds, was the last RAF Lightning base and by early 1987 its personnel were getting ready to say farewell to the fighter that had been part of the scenery since the early 1960s. Paying off the Lightnings would be doubly sad, as the occasion also heralded the station’s closure. On the last day of 1987 a ceremony marked the disbandment of 5 Squadron, and 11 Squadron stood down on April 30, 1988. Later that year, both 5 and 11 began re-equipping with Tornado F.3s at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, and Leeming, North Yorkshire, respectively.

Disposals and scrappings of the last Lightnings had been going on for some time at Binbrook. Our ‘Last of the Line’ series will examine the dispersal of the fleet at a later date.

On the other side of the Pennines, at the British Aerospace (BAe) test centre at Warton, Lancashire, plans were in hand for a new Lightning ‘squadron’. The venerable jets were needed to help iron out problems with the Tornado F.3 radar system.

Blue Circle Radar

Britain had chosen to adapt the Anglo-German-Italian Tornado strike fighter as a long-range interceptor, known as the Air Defence Variant (ADV). Able to loiter up to 350 miles (563km) away from base, the ADV was intended to engage inbound Soviet bombers without the need for ‘last minute’ pinpoint scrambles.

At the ADV’s heart was the advanced Marconi-Ferranti AI.24 Foxhunter track-while-scan radar. The prototype had its maiden flight, from Warton, on October 27, 1979. From the start, there were issues with Foxhunter and it was nearly two years before the radar was available for fitting into the test fleet. An interim batch of Tornado F.2s preceded the definitive F.3s, the first of these beginning to equip 229 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) at Coningsby in November 1984.

Foxhunter was not mature enough to be fitted to the OCU’s F.2s and their noses carried ballast in place of the radar. This ‘modification’ was nicknamed ‘Blue Circle’ to sound like a top-secret device, but was really after the well-known brand of cement reputed to be in the nose (in reality metal weights took the place of the radar). It was 1987 before the Foxhunter was ready for operations – in a provisional form – and that April the former McDonnell Phantom FGR.2-equipped 29 Squadron at Coningsby became the first unit to fly the F.3.

Stay of Execution

There was still much development work to be undertaken on the Foxhunter. Intensive trials were needed to perfect the system, particularly at supersonic speeds. The Warton-based Tornado ADV test fleet needed an adversary that could replicate the type’s likely opposition. Phantoms seemed the obvious candidates, but they could not be spared and would require time-consuming retraining for Warton groundcrews.

Warton had a resident Lightning, F.6 XP693, and the local technicians had decades of experience handling the type. But one was not enough; the ADV was intended to acquire and engage multiple targets at very high speeds. The timely answer was the soon-to-retire Binbrook F.6s. Four were chosen, one of which would be held in reserve. While they were to be civilian operated, they would still proudly wear RAF roundels; the Lightning had gained a stay of execution….

The rest of this feature can be read in the current FlyPast, in UK shops now, or available at

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